A few years ago, when the former pro football player Martellus Bennett was looking for books to read to his young daughter, he was disappointed by his options. He had trouble finding titles with protagonists who looked like her and who had parents who looked like him.
So, unable to find the sort of book he wanted, he wrote his own—his whimsical Hey A.J. series follows the adventures of a little girl with voluminous curly hair, like his daughter’s.
Bennett is not alone as a black parent who has felt the need to take a hands-on role in selecting what books, movies, shows, and toys his child is exposed to on a regular basis. As a sociologist who studies families, I have interviewed 60 middle- and upper-middle-class African American mothers, many of whom have not just encountered a shortage of media that represents them, but are worried about the messages their kids receive from the majority of books and shows out there. They recognize that a central project of parenthood—raising happy kids with strong self-esteem—takes more (and more deliberate) effort when one’s kids are black.
The mothers I talked to generally weren’t confident that when they turned on the television, went to a movie theater, or visited a bookstore, their children would see empowering versions of themselves. One mother I interviewed told me, “I don’t want [my son’s] understandings of black folks to be from the media. You know, I want him to know black people as we are.” She and other moms I talked to—as is standard in scholarly research, I agreed not to publish any of these mothers’ names—worried about most media’s reliance on damaging stereotypes, and said they curated their kids’ media intake with an eye toward including racially empowering imagery. (For many parents with less time and money, some of these efforts would likely be even more challenging to undertake.)